Gravy Train. Jerky. An etymology of meat words

July 15, 2012

story by Malia Wollan
illustrations by Holly Mulder-Wollan
This article originally appeared
Meatpaper Issue Eighteen. 

GRAVY TRAIN: noun, slang, originated in the United States. Gravy is an example of what linguists call a “ghost word,” or a word that originates in an error. In this case, it seems that sometime in the 14th century, a recipe transcriber mistook the Old French grané, meaning “grain or seed,” and wrote it as gravé. Gravé became gravy. Then in the late 19th or early 20th century, the word underwent a so-called meaning shift, coming to describe not just a meaty sauce but also easy money. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first example of this usage in a July 1910 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. “Stick him for all you can,” the article read. “You’re a hard worker, and you mustn’t let somebody else git the gravy.” In 1927, American Speech, the quarterly academic journal of the American Dialect Society, wrote that gravy train was an American slang term meaning a paying position requiring little or no work. Etymologists are perplexed by the train. In his book Heavens to Betsy! And Other Curious Sayings, author Charles Earle Funk suggests that perhaps the term derived from “railroad lingo, in which a gravy run or a gravy train meant an easy run with good pay for the train crew.” Whatever its origin, the term quickly caught on with newspaper headline writers, politicians, ad men, and even rock stars. In the 1960s, General Foods named a dog food brand Gravy Train. In 1975, the English rock band Pink Floyd used the term in the lyrics to a song, “And did we tell you the name of the game, boy, we call it riding the gravy train.”

JERKY: noun. The term originates in the Spanish word charqui, also spelled charque, which is believed to be derived from the Quechua word ch’arki, meaning dried meat. Quechua is the language of the Incan Indians of modern-day Peru. The Incans built and maintained vast road networks throughout their South American empire, and travelers often relied on dried llama meat while on the road. Think today’s gas station jerky, only made of llama. When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in the Incan empire in the 1530s, he and his men noted with admiration the Incans’ large quantities of dried meat. Though the term charqui became widely used in Spanish, it did not appear in English until 1612, in the writings of English explorer Captain John Smith. Smith, a founder of the Jamestown colony who famously took up with Pocahontas, translated the Spanish word into English as jerkin. In his account, A map of Virginia, with a description of the countrey, Smith describes the culture of Pocahontas’s tribe, the Algonquians. He compares the Algonquian dried meat to the dried meat he’d eaten in the Caribbean. “Their fish and flesh they boyle either very tenderly, or broyle it so long on hurdles over the fire,” he wrote. “Or else, after the Spanish fashion, putting it on a spit, they turne first the one side, then the other, til it be as drie as their jerkin beefe in the west Indies, that they may keepe it a month or more without putrifying.” 

Sources: Spanish Word Historieand Mysteries: English Words That Come FroSpanish; The Oxford English Dictionary; Weeds in the Garden oWords: Further Observationothe Tangled History of the English Language, by Kate Burridge; and Heavento Betsy! And Other CuriouSayings, by Charles Earle Funk. 

MALIA WOLLAN is a Meatpaper editor.

HOLLY MULDER-WOLLAN is an artist and illustrator living in Oakland, California.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eighteen.

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